Baseball: Stevens sees silver lining without star

Matt Forman

A season ago, coach Paul Stevens had nothing but praise for his then-sophomore slugger Jake Goebbert.

After all, Goebbert, a second-team All-Big Ten selection, was a statistical machine. He led the conference in doubles, was fourth in slugging percentage, sixth in home runs and eighth in on-base percentage.

Then, Stevens compared Goebbert to American healthcare, saying he “doesn’t wait to get sick to stay healthy.”

Now, Goebbert is sidelined for the remainder of the season with a kidney injury, no thanks to a collision with the outfield fence at the Metrodome. Luckily, Goebbert is expected to make a full recovery in play in baseball’s heralded Cape Cod League this summer.

But Stevens’ praise didn’t stop there. Northwestern’s skipper of 21 years, who has coached the likes of Joe Girardi and Mark Loretta, said he would put Goebbert right up there with the former major leaguers. Stevens said of Goebbert, “Go-Go is just that, he’s Mr. Go-Go. He makes things go-go and go-go well.”

Now, without Goebbert in the lineup, the Wildcats are looking for a way to make things go. And it hasn’t been easy.

“Heck yes,” Stevens said. “Without Goebbert, we have to play smart ball.”

Smart ball might as well be small ball – playing station-to-station and advancing runners when possible.

Unlike any other hitter in Stevens’ lineup, Goebbert had the ability to change the game with one swing of the bat. Since his injury at Minnesota, NU has lost 10 games. Six of those games were decided by four runs or less, or in a given situation, one swing of the bat.

“Let’s make no mistake about it, Goebbert is a difference maker,” Stevens said. “He creates problems, not only when he’s in the batter’s box, but after he’s in the box. It’s not a shot at the other guys in the lineup, but they’re no Goebbert. He makes things go.”

Besides missing Goebbert’s statistical production, the Cats are missing his situational production. Without his name on the lineup card, senior Tony Vercelli and sophomore Chris Lashmet are seeing more off-speed pitches.

In a lineup that features as many as four freshman starters on a given day, Goebbert’s veteran presence and his lead-by-example approach were vital to the team’s success.

“The dynamic of not having a leader is changing my approach and putting a little more on my shoulders,” senior shortstop Tommy Finn said. “He was awesome at the mental side of the game.”

There’s no telling where the Cats would be at this point with a healthy Goebbert. But it is safe to say that the team has not been the same without him. When Goebbert lost his season, NU might have lost theirs.

Anytime a player suffers an injury, it’s difficult to see any positive impact. For NU, it could have lost Goebbert in the draft. He should return for his senior season.

Goebbert has seen things from a different perceptive. Baseball has been stripped from him for a few months, and he’s gotten to evaluate pitchers in a different way.

It’ll pay off for both sides. Just ask Stevens.

“My own prediction – When Jake Goebbert is back in a Wildcat uniform, Jake Goebbert will tear up college baseball as a hitter,” he said. “I’m telling you that’s going to be a bat to be reckoned with. He will make some noise. It’s going to be really scary.”

Deputy Sports Editor Matt Forman is a Medill sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]